CRUMBLING HISTORY: Tombstone of Arkansas' first congressman falls into disrepair

Posted: November 5, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.
Updated: November 6, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

“There’s not any way to fix this,” Fayetteville Evergreen Cemetery Association President Marilyn Heifner said of the deteriorating obelisk marking Archibald Yell’s final resting place.

FAYETTEVILLE -- The tombstone of Arkansas' first congressman is crumbling into pieces.

The marble on Archibald Yell's 10-foot-tall obelisk is "sugaring," said Marilyn Heifner, president of the Fayetteville Evergreen Cemetery Association.

She means it's turning into a fine, white powder.

"There's not any way to fix this," Heifner said. "We have more pieces in the shed down yonder by the caretaker's house."

For about a year, the cemetery association has quietly tried to raise money to replace Yell's 160-year-old monument.

Members have raised about $13,000 of the $22,050 needed to construct and install a replica. Now they're making it a public campaign to raise the remaining money.

Sitting just south of Dickson Street near the University of Arkansas campus, Evergreen was Fayetteville's first public cemetery. It's now 10 acres and contains about 3,700 graves, including those of other noted Fayetteville natives such as U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright.

Yell was Arkansas' first congressman in 1836 and second governor in 1840. He was a magnetic politician for whom Yell County and Yellville (in Marion County) were named, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture.

"Yell charmed the voters and ignored the issues, displaying his charismatic character to the fullest," according to the encyclopedia. "One story has it that Yell bought a chance at a shooting match for beef and made the best shot. He then gave his prize of beef to a poor widow and bought drinks for everyone."

Yell died in 1847 in the Battle of Buena Vista in the Mexican-American War. On his horse, with sword in hand, Col. Yell led a "heroic" charge toward 1,000 Mexicans, killing several before being lanced to death, according to the Arkansas encyclopedia.

Other accounts indicate the bridle bit in his horse's mouth broke, leaving Yell with no way to control the panicked beast. It bolted headlong into the Mexican lancers well before the rest of the Arkansas troops, cementing Yell's reputation for bravery.

Initially, Yell was buried near the battlefield in a tin coffin inside a strong wooden one, wrote Josiah Gregg, who witnessed Yell's burial.

Five months later, Yell's body was brought back to Arkansas and buried in the family cemetery near Waxhaws, the name he gave his house just south of Fayetteville.

"Yell's slashed and bloodied jacket was exhibited in the front hall of his home, while the bloodstained belt that held his saber was displayed in the office of the Secretary of State," wrote Abby Burnett of Kingston, an expert on Ozark Mountain burial customs, in a paper she called "The Three Burials of Archibald Yell."

In 1872, all the bodies from the family cemetery at Waxhaws were removed and reburied in Evergreen Cemetery, according to the encyclopedia article.

But that must have been after a "special correspondent" who went by the name "Wanderer" visited Fayetteville on April 5, 1872, and wrote an article for the Nashville Union and American.

At that point, the obelisk was still at Waxhaws cemetery, but Yell's name was nowhere on it. The tombstone had an inscription for two of his wives, Ann on one side and Maria on the other. It was surrounded by an iron fence.

"The monument and enclosure, I understand, were ordered for the graves of his wives, by Gov. Yell, before his departure for Mexico, and this perhaps is an explanation of his name not appearing upon the monument -- nobody feeling authorized to put it there," according to the article.

By 1872, the tombstone was already in a state of disrepair. A marble slab had recently become detached from the granite, fell and broke into three or four pieces, according to the article by Wanderer.

Wanderer encountered a good friend of Yell's who told the story of the bridle bit. He said Yell would have survived Buena Vista if he had been using a curb bit instead of a snaffle, which connects in the center of the bit.

Heifner said the monument at Evergreen Cemetery contains several factual errors, and the cemetery association is debating about whether it should correct those errors or make an exact replica of the tombstone, errors included.

For one thing, the tombstone states that Yell was born in North Carolina, but all indications are that he was actually born in Tennessee in 1797, Heifner said.

Burnett said the monument's inscriptions were written by David Walker, who was Yell's law partner and his unsuccessful rival in the congressional race of 1844.

Burnett said new cemeteries often sought graves of the "famous dead" for prestige, and Yell was Fayetteville's most famous resident at the time his remains were moved to Evergreen.

Yell's son, DeWitt Clinton Yell, and his daughter also are buried at Evergreen, based on the monument inscription. They died in the 1860s.

But, Burnett noted, the Evergreen ledger at the Department of Special Collections in the university's library lists only Yell and his two wives being moved from Waxhaws to Evergreen. Burnett said it's possible the remains of DeWitt Clinton Yell and the daughter were moved to Evergreen later, or their names were just added to the monument to honor them.

Yell's first wife, Mary Scott, died during childbirth in Tennessee in 1823 and is likely buried in that state, Burnett said.

The marble on historic Arkansas figure Archibald Yell’s 160-yearold grave marker at Fayetteville Evergreen Cemetery is broken and deteriorating into a...

Metro on 11/05/2017